Posts Tagged ‘Cricket Magazine’

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It’s easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you’re no longer trying to figure out what it’s all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

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Two Wild Horses

March 4, 2009

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bitter-sweet taste of life and death. . . . Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”  — Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Memory and hope, two wild horses, dragging us without respite. . . . The taste of life and death always in our mouths, bitter and sweet. . . . The reason Lud-in-the-Mist belongs on our small shelves of the ten or so greatest works of fantasy is because Ms. Mirrlees understood: she truly got what it is that makes us human. Her book is full of that agonizing, ecstatic interrelationship of time, nature, and us feeling mortals.

Memory: from our earliest years, are we not filled with nostalgia for the past? Are we not haunted by things which were but no longer are? As we age, memories pile upon memories, the falling of golden leaves. These shape our identities; they are treasures which give us pain and strength. Perhaps there is no strength without pain, in the same way that our growing bones hurt before they lengthen. And when we try to envision Heaven, do we not search among the troves of our memories, seeking out those moments which, in the gentle rounding of time, seem to have been far better than the ordinary days in which we now find ourselves?

Hope: from our earliest years, do we not choose to live, when we close our eyes or gaze into the distance, in the realm of what we fancy will be? Hope colors all that we do, for we look to the light of possibility that shines just ahead of us, glowing in the open door. In a little while — so we tell ourselves — when the seasons change, when we reach the clearing or the landing, all will be better, and there will be again something like the joy of the golden moments that are gone.

I can’t help thinking of the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

So we are odd creatures, trapped in our freedom, hurt by our joys and rejoicing in our hurts. “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad: for all their wars are merry, and all their songs sad.” We ride our carriages pulled by Untowards; we are made full only by what lies behind and by that unknown country ahead.

Groink!

Updates on The Star Shard: my agent is enthusiastic about the revisions, and he is sending it on to the book editor who has expressed a strong interest. That editor, if he is equally excited about the rewritten draft, then will have to convince his fellow decision-makers of the book’s potential. So — there are hurdles yet ahead, but right now, things are going well! Many prayers. . . .

Finally, I referred several postings ago to a contest held by Cricket in which they encouraged their readers to try writing poems/songs the Urrmsh might sing. [The Urrmsh are a race of beings in my story “The Star Shard” which is being serialized in Cricket Magazine right now.] The winners of that contest have been chosen, and the editors have graciously allowed me to read them. The work is absolutely amazing, and again, I can’t describe the feeling of having young people all across the nation writing poetry based on these characters in this story. They turn their poetic spotlights not only onto what is made clear in the story, but also into the dark corners; they delve into the parts of the greater tale that lie beyond the borders of the pages. One, for instance, explores the journey of the Urrmsh toward their present state; one focuses on the romance between Cymbril’s parents. I see Cricket‘s wisdom in launching the contest precisely when they did, when just enough has been revealed to give the poets maximum grist.

A fascinating thing I’ve noticed about the poems is that the poets seem most drawn to the conflict Cymbril feels — should she go or should she stay? How can she move forward? How can she say goodbye to the Rake and her friends there? What lies ahead?

And does that sound familiar? Does it sound like the opening number of this post? Cymbril, too, is “dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope.”

I believe all the winning poems will be published in an issue of Cricket coming up soon — start watching with the April 2009 issue, in which “The Star Shard” will come to its end. They really are beautiful, outstanding pieces.

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us: but unto Thy name be glory given.”

Jan Retro

February 4, 2009

No, that’s not a fictional character. It’s short for “January Retrospective.” What a month January was! Part 8 of “The Star Shard” is on stands now (the February issue of Cricket), and Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations just get better and better. Before Part 8, my favorite portrait of Cymbril was the one where she’s kneeling at the door to her bunk, listening. Now I think it’s the one from Part 8, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent in the wagon. Emily pays such attention to detail! See the leaves embroidered on Cymbril’s cloak? Those are there in the text description! Bobbin reminds me a lot of the world of manga — maybe it’s the super-long ponytail. Oh, and I love the opening portrait — Part 8 — of Cymbril, too, at the rail with the two cats. Is it my imagination, or is Cymbril getting steadily prettier? Maybe she’s growing up. . . . I’ll bet there are more than a few teenage boys in love with her. I know I would be if I were the age of most Cricket readers.

Anyone who’s not getting the magazine (and even if you are) — you can see Emily’s astonishing illustrations for this story on her Web site. Go to www.e-figart.com. Click on “Gallery” and scroll down: she has an entire discrete section dedicated to “The Star Shard.”

But back to the point. Here are some January goings-on:

I have to quote this fantastic letter from a reader named Celia: “My favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I think you should make the episodes longer! . . . . I love the illustrations. . . . They make Cymbril look so pretty. I love that name. If I ever have a daughter, I am going to name her Cymbril.”

Isn’t that far out? I remember reading — and feel free to correct me on this, if you know differently — that the name “Wendy” entered our culture through Peter Pan. That is, there were no girls named Wendy before that character came along. After the book, there were lots! There was a Wendy in my class in school. So just maybe a generation of Cymbrils is coming!

In the latest issue’s The Letterbox, Henrietta C. writes: “‘The Star Shard’ is one of the best stories I’ve read. I think that we should have more stories from Frederic S. Durbin in this magazine.” And A.J.H. writes: “Right now, my favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I love fantasy books!”

I think I already quoted the poem written by Amanda based on the September cover — “A cat by her side, eyes bright and green, / Sees what the girl thinks cannot be seen. / A stone to her forehead, magic inside; / An elf on the other end, linked to her mind.” There were three poetry contest winners who wrote poems inspired by that September cover picture of Cymbril in the windy night, standing on that high ledge on the Rake’s prow. You can read them all on Cricket‘s site! (www.cricketmagkids.com)

Also, the latest poetry contest invites readers to write “a song the Urrmsh might sing”!

And there’s new fan art up! The number of pictures doubled this month, and every single one is just amazing! On the “Corner” page, click the icon that says “Fan Art.”

But here’s perhaps the most jaw-dropping story of the month: in a U.S. state which I shan’t disclose, a wonderful mom began reading “The Star Shard” aloud to a group of kids–her two, plus six more from another family. The kids range in age from well below the typical Cricket demographic to well up into the Cicada range, and everything in between. This group sent me a photo of themselves (which was also sent to Cricket). Each of the kids is holding up a copy of the magazine, open to the story, all 8 parts represented. The group calls themselves “The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club,” and they even managed to superimpose that name across the top of the picture digitally. And it gets still better! The club members are all dressed up as their favorite characters from the story and/or Sidhe in general! Right smack in the center of the photo are a boy and girl just the ages of Loric and Cymbril, dressed as Loric and Cymbril! The girl (who looks like Cymbril) is holding up that September issue, and her dress and cloak are the same color and style as those Cymbril is wearing on her high ledge! And it gets still better! I’m told that the kids play “The Star Shard” in their costumes, acting out parts and making the continuing story their own, much as we played The Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Star Wars as kids. In other words, the story has gone on to a life of its own, quite apart from me, just like a real story, not just something I wrote. Now, how is that for something to make a writer’s entire year, although it’s only January? Talk about a humbling experience! “Who am I, Lord?” Soli Deo gloria!

In other January news: I heard from Stefan Dziemianowicz that the anthology which includes my Hallowe’en tale “The Bone Man” is finally moving into the pipeline for publication. They had quite a time getting all the authors to sign the contracts. But the book is on track again now and should be out sometime this year! Woo-hooo!

Oh!–the most recent word from my agent is that he’d gotten about 2/3 of the way through the novel version of The Star Shard and is still really liking it. Whew! Haven’t heard from him in over a week. I hope he didn’t hate the last third! [Writer angst attack.]

Okay, those are the big things. Let’s see. . . . When I visited my friend “Marquee Movies” last summer, he took me for the second time to an extraordinary comic book shop, where I bought a Buffy the Vampire Slayer calendar. (Best TV series I’ve ever encountered, I kid you not.) This month’s page is all about Willow, my favorite character on the show. The picture on my William Blake calendar this month is his painting God Judging Adam; and moving down the row, the Tolkien calendar’s February picture is By Moonlight in Neldoreth Forest, by Ted Nasmith — a painting of that famous daughter of Thingol and Melian dancing in the lunar glow.

Finally, here’s another good night story (remember my one about encountering the maybe-a-chupacabras?):

I was walking home tonight from a nearby convenience store, where I’d paid a utility bill (can you do that in the States? It’s a really handy thing here in Japan). The street and sidewalk were very dark. It was a stretch of almost no car traffic. Light from an intersection far away behind me was projected at a low angle across a white metal fence in front of me. And suddenly, there on the fence, captured in that light from far off, was my shadow — only it wasn’t my shadow. It was in the right place for my shadow; it was the size my shadow should have been. But it was very clearly not my shadow. The shape, the clothing, and the movements were all wrong. Talk about unsettling! It was clearly the shadow of another person, although I seemed to be casting it. Eerily, there was no one else around me — I looked in every direction.

Finally, I figured out that it was the shadow of a lone teenage guy way, way behind me, back by the intersection. The light was just low-angled enough, and he was just far enough away, that his shadow was thrown onto the wall at a size and in a position that made it look like it should have been my shadow. Fascinating illusion!

So yes, I go on living in my twilit world of dreams and phantasms. . . .

Also just tonight I sent off the signed contract for Part 10 of “The Star Shard.” That’s the final part. I know, I’m starting to be sad already. When this story’s run is over, it will be for me like the end of that three-year golden age of The Lord of the Rings in theaters — very sad. But it has been, and that’s a significant comfort and encouragement. It was; it is a part of Cricket‘s venerable history. And, Lord willing, maybe it will yet be a book . . . a series? May it be like King Arthur: a “once and future” story!

It’s Away!

January 19, 2009
"Behold, the Argonath! The Pillars of the Kings!"

"Behold, the Argonath! The Pillars of the Kings!"

Heh, heh — they’re actually maneki neko, which means “inviting cats.” But I couldn’t resist pointing out the similarity to a certain mighty landmark in Middle-earth. I’ve never seen maneki neko in a paired set like this before. Maybe as the economy gets bad, more cats are getting jobs as inviters, sitting atop roofs. . . . Seriously, in Japan, the “come here” gesture is made that way, with the palm forward and brought

"They are Isildur and Anarion, my forefathers of old."

"They are Isildur and Anarion, my forefathers of old."

 down in a scooping motion — just the opposite of the Western upward scoop for “come here.” So these two cats are beckoning wealth: they’re positioned atop a booth that sells lottery tickets. People often have smaller versions of them in their homes or shops to call in people, good fortune, and prosperity.

Anyway — grrooinnk! (the sound of my changing subject) — it’s often pointed out by history buffs that the Persian Gulf War  was the first war that the general public could see unfolding before their eyes, through the “miracles” (?) of television and modern reporting. Through the miracle of a blog, this is the first time I’ve finished and submitted a manuscript “with the world watching.” (Delusion of Grandeur: $25 fine.) Okay: with a few people watching, which is way more than usual. Usually writing is the most solitary endeavor in the world.

So, The Star Shard is off to my agent. That’s always a good feeling, to send something out the door. Here’s your handkerchief and your lunch, little manuscript. Take care — send a postcard! Make us proud! And yes, you can always come home. If you come home all torn and coffee-stained and sadder but wiser, we’ll welcome you back with open arms and tend to your wounds and nurse you into better health, and you don’t have to leave again until you’re ready.

Grroinnk #2: Cricket had a poetry contest in which they invited readers to write poems inspired by their favorite Cricket covers. Three of the winners wrote poems based on the September cover, that hauntingly mysterious image of Cymbril on the high ledge outside the hatchway on the Rake’s prow. You can read these and all the winners on Cricket‘s Web site (www.cricketmagkids.com). I am totally impressed by the quality of the poems these kids write! My favorite of those three is one by a girl named Amanda. (Well, I’m assuming “girl.”) I can’t post the poem here, but I can quote you some snatches of it: “A cat by her side, eyes bright and green, / Sees what the girl thinks cannot be seen.” And how about this? — “A stone to her forehead, magic inside; / An elf on the other end, linked to her mind.” Very cool stuff — and so humbling to think about the reality of it: young readers drawing artwork and writing poetry based on Emily’s illustrations of my story. “Who am I, Lord?” Again: Soli Deo gloria!

By the way, that picture (Cymbril on the high perch, with the night mists and the swooping owls) is available as a poster in two sizes through Cricket‘s  Web site. Yes, I have my own framed copy!

Grroooiiinnk #3: Thanks to the engaging discussions you’ve all taken part in, the blog has broken its own record for visits in a single day this past week — thank you all for being here! A blog is the one aspect of the writing life that isn’t lonely! (Maybe that’s why everyone recommends them….)

Grrooinnk #4: Awhile back, a good friend recommended to me a film called Cannibal, the Musical. I finally got around to tracking down a copy and watching it. Oh . . . wow! I have not laughed so hard in a good, long while. It is absolutely hysterical — brilliantly done, and probably not like anything you’ve ever seen. A few warnings are in order: as you can gather from the title, it’s probably not for most children. The guys who made it are the guys who also did South Park, if that tells you anything. There is some language, some simulated gore, and . . . well, some cannibalism. But anyone who grew up with Monty Python will laugh so hard at Cannibal, the Musical that s/he’ll have tears streaming down his/her face. (Whew! What an awkward sentence!) Just to give you a hint of what you’ll encounter: in one scene, the prospectors and the fur trappers nearly come to blows over precisely what key a song is in. And you’ll see the most suspicious Indians you’ve ever seen: “What? Don’t you think we are Indians? But loooook at all these teeeeepeeeees! We have teeepeees because we are . . . Iiiindiaaans!” (They’re actually extremely Japanese, with names such as Junichi and Tomomi.)

And one more warning: you’ll have some catchy songs stuck in your head for about a week. But I’ll say this: this is one worth owning, not just renting, because you’ll want to watch it over and over.

Okay, that’s it for now — talk to you soon!

Encouragement

January 13, 2009

Yes, it’s a lame title, I know. But good titles are hard to come up with, aren’t they? Just a little while ago I was complaining to a friend about the trouble I’ve had finding a title for one of my works-in-progress. I was calling it The Fires of the Deep until an editor told me I’d better change it so that no one would confuse it with Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Recently, I thought I had it all figured out: I was going to call it The Twilight. Beautiful, right? But what is every girl and her mom in America reading right now?–yep, a little something called Twilight. Sigh. Anyway, titles fascinate me. (Back in the early days of this blog, I asked readers what some of their favorite titles were. Anyone else want to ring in on that? I still say the current reigning champion is The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not talking about content, mind you: just sheer titular awesomeness.)

But anyway! I’m overwhelmed with thankfulness this week for the letters that continue to come in, either to Cricket (which Cricket very kindly forwards to me) or on the Web site (www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin). Now, to keep things in perspective, not 100% of readers like the story. On the Web site, in some of the discussion threads, there are a few readers who say they haven’t read it — that they’ve avoided reading it — which is understandable. As a kid, I was put off by continued stories. I disliked them in comic books, I disliked them on TV, and I disliked them in magazines. I much preferred stories that ended inside one cover. Long was fine, but I never wanted to see “to be continued.” So I understand where those readers are coming from.

There are also some readers who say “What’s all this fuss about ‘The Star Shard’? I don’t like it.” Those always upset me, and that’s human nature, I suppose: no matter how many kids say they love it, when one comes along who says s/he doesn’t, I’m all aargh and ouch. I walk around for the rest of the day with one of those smoldering cartoon balloons over my head — the kind that are just full of dark scribbles. The worst was one who said she didn’t think Cymbril acted like a real girl. Coming from a real girl, that hurt! Another wrote that she didn’t think Cymbril really wanted to escape from the Thunder Rake — and actually, that’s quite a fair and astute observation. Cymbril does have mixed feelings about escaping, and that’s an important part of the story for me. It explores the true nature of happiness. What is the difference between a blessing and a burden? Is there always a clear difference? Can there be an overlapping of the two? What is the nature of freedom? “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage.”

Most often, though, the naysayers then go on to rip on the illustrations — and if anyone starts ripping on those, which are breathtakingly gorgeous and perfectly appropriate to the story, then I know the commenters are just plain out to attack, and I don’t feel as bad. It’s like how, if someone starts spouting racial slurs, for example, you know you don’t have to worry too much about that person’s opinions.

(To be clear: most readers are saying good things about “The Star Shard” — I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a controversial story. To the best of my knowledge, the response to it has been quite good.)

But to speak of the illustrations brings me to another point: I am fully aware that a lot of the enthusiasm readers have for “The Star Shard” is on account of the pictures. Some readers have said, “I love this story — especially the pictures!” I can tell that some love Loric because of the way the artist has drawn him. If this story were published without the artwork, I don’t think it would be nearly as popular. One of the funniest things is how Cymbril’s dresses have built up a fan base among younger teen and pre-teen girls! That’s something I certainly didn’t think about when writing the story, but the fact that her Master dictates exactly what she wears at each of the markets is another significant part of the character’s development . . . and the artist has made the costumes all look so good that we get letters and fan art centered on Cymbril’s wardrobe! (If the series ever does well enough to generate a line of action figures, we’ll have to have Pink-Dress Cymbril, Green-Dress Cymbril, Puffy-Sleeves Cymbril. . . .)

Three letters this week have been particularly encouraging. One reader wrote: “I wanted to tell you that I am totally hooked on ‘The Star Shard’ (April 2008-2009)! It is one of the most incredible continued stories I have read. . . .”

Another was from a young person whose life was completely turned on its side recently when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Now she has to endure daily injections, and everything is different; but she says Cricket and “The Star Shard” have been a source of fun that she really looks forward to. When you hear things like that. . . .

Finally, just today I read a letter that said “The Star Shard” made the person start reading Cricket! She had always considered Cricket to be her sister’s magazine. One day she picked it up idly and read Part V of my story, and she was so captivated by it that she went tearing around the house digging through National Geographics in search of the earlier installments in Cricket! She went on to say that if this becomes a book, she’s definitely going to buy it.

And a great many fans have said that — they’re clamoring for a book. One wrote that it’s the sort of story one curls up with on a rainy day and reads even though one has read it many times before — wow!

So it continues to be an overwhelming, humbling experience. I never dreamed I’d be in this place as a writer — even a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. Soli Deo gloria — “To God alone be glory”!

By about the end of this week, Lord willing, I’ll be delivering the novel-length version of The Star Shard to my agent. If he finds no problems with it, he’ll pass it along to the editor who has expressed a significant interest in it (and whose detailed notes I used carefully in the expansion process). This is a critical phase: will the story stand up without the illustrations? Have I successfully built a novel — or rather, helped a novel to grow — around the more streamlined version? I feel good about it and would certainly appreciate the prayers of anyone so inclined that The Star Shard will find a publisher as Book One of a series — and that readers will embrace the book as they have the magazine story!

Okay, on a humorous note: my computer’s grammar- and spelling-checker cracks me up! It always goes nuts over my fiction, griping endlessly about my use of commas. It hates all reflexive pronouns, even when they’re used correctly — like photocopy machines made after about 1990, it thinks it knows better than any silly human what needs to be done. Again and again, my grammar-checker says to me, “You can’t be serious,” to which I reply, “I’m deadly serious. Now back way off.”

This is the hilarious part: this evening I was making a worksheet for my academic writing kids. It was a whole sheet of sentences with no punctuation whatever — my students will be adding the commas, colons, and semicolons needed. By force of habit, I ran the spell- and grammar check — and the computer instantly gave the green light to the whole page. No problems at all!

So there you are. If you want to be really correct, just don’t use punctuation. Don’t use any. None. Just don’t use it. Let your sentences run on and your clauses commingle.

It’s just like how our society believes that “I” is always more correct than “me.” Always, in every case. “Me” is for unschooled cretins. And every single “s” should have an apostrophe in front of it. In fact, I think they’re teaching the alphabet that way in schools now, aren’t they?

. . . O P Q R ‘S T U V. . .

On that note, until next time — many ble’s’sing’s!

A Writer’s Life in October

October 25, 2008

Such busy, busy days and nights, and so much happening! It’s been one of the best Octobers I can remember in quite awhile. For the most part, the weather has been gloriously warm and sunny, and I’ve spent as much time outdoors as possible. (The sun is so rare in Niigata that when it comes out, you drop everything and run outside in full absorption mode.)

Seriously, where to begin? First, the Fan Art is beginning to roll on Cricket‘s website, and they’ve got the first three pictures up of “The Star Shard” done by young readers. (www.cricketmagkids.com) I can’t describe the feeling of seeing artwork drawn for a story that entered the world through my mind and fingers. It’s humbling . . . it’s moving . . . it’s awesome . . . it’s — well, indescribable! Actually, it’s the second time I’ve had this rare joy. The first was years ago, when a teacher friend cajoled his students into drawing various villains from Dragonfly. I still treasure those. When kids draw the Harvest Moon heavies, they’re terrifying!

Second, just today, a friend passed along to me a review of Dragonfly written by a friend of hers on LiveJournal. (Ooh, am I allowed to say that on WordPress?) It’s truly uplifting to know that someone somewhere curled up with my old book and spent the day riveted. That’s the wonder of art. That poor book has been wandering around out in the world for close to a decade now — knocked around, remaindered, pulped, offered for sale on Amazon for a penny. . . . But it still connects with readers now and then. It still offers a world to escape into. This reviewer gave it an “A+.” She writes:

“Today was a good day. I spent it in bed under my pink polka-dot blanket reading page after page of Dragonfly until I could read no more and it was finished. /…/ I found it utterly fantastic. /…/ Frederic S. Durbin creates an entire world in only 350 pages [sounds like the paperback], and I would have to say that the world he creates is one of the biggest, most creative worlds I have ever ventured to by way of reading. /…/ Throughout the end chapters of this book I found my eyes welling with tears. I honestly did not know how this book would end up until the very last battle, and even then I had my doubts; but I will leave you to find out which side prevails.

“I think that everyone that enjoys embracing the dark side of life or ever wonders what hides in the shadows of a dark room will enjoy this book because it acknowledges our worst fears. I also think that anyone that enjoys female leads will find entertainment in this novel. Dragonfly is a strong and witty little girl wise beyond her years.”

Soli Deo gloria! And thank you, o thou friend-of-a-friend!

So, I’m about to head to Calgary for this year’s World Fantasy Convention. I’m really excited about that, as you can imagine! I’m scheduled to do a 30-minute reading again this year. Last time, I opted for three shorter selections to fill the half-hour, going for variety. This time, for the sake of experimentation, I’m planning to use the whole time to deliver one unified whole — namely, the Brigit and Phocion section from “Seawall,” the last novelette in Agondria. I chose that one because it’s an encapsulated, standalone tale, and because I think it’s some of the best writing in that book. (It gives me a little chance to act, too! Oh, the drama! “Alas, poor Yorick!”)

At the Convention, I’m also planning to have lunch with my agent on Friday. It will actually be our first face-to-face meeting. He is truly worth his weight in gold and then some — he’s working so hard to get my novel-length version of “The Star Shard” sold to the best possible publishing house. (I’m now thinking of calling that novel The Star Shard. Isn’t that brilliant and innovative? Maybe some fans of the story will notice a connection between the titles!)

While I’m dropping phrases like “my agent” and sounding all like a hoity-toity writer, I’ve got to tell you about a day I spent recently. The theme of this posting is a writer’s life in October, and this day in question, my major activities really sound like I’m living the writing life — like a page from the G.Q. of Writers, if such a magazine existed. Heh, heh — read on:

First (this is all one day, mind you), I made notes on a bundle of my poems from my old chapbook Songs of Summerdark at the request of a colleague at the university. She’s a composer who delights in setting words to music, and she wants to take a whack at some of my poems. So I was going through picking out poems, suggesting instrumentation, and writing notes on what I was trying to capture in the poems and what I thought the instruments and voices should be doing. It will be great fun to see what she comes up with!

Second, I worked on timing my reading for the Convention. The only way to do that is to read it more-or-less aloud from beginning to end and notice how much time elapses. I ended up cutting a bit from the middle.

Third, I put together a promotional package of some things for The Star Shard to deliver to my agent when we meet. I try to keep him supplied with anything and everything that might be useful in selling the book.

Finally, I read and carefully critiqued a novelette for a good friend, which was pure joy, not work.

If that ain’t livin’ the writing life, I don’t know what is! I’m thankful for the chance to be here, to be now, to be doing the things I’m doing. It’s not a matter of course — it’s a matter of grace. I’m thankful for the sunlight this October. I’m thankful for my students . . . for words on paper . . . for imagination and the coming of Hallowe’en . . . for the gift of participation in this incredible, unforeseeable sprawl that is life.

Speaking of Hallowe’en: I’d like to encourage another round of reader participation. Are you all still out there? If so, we can’t let this holiday slip by without a proper celebration — a proper revel in smoky lantern light while shadows caper. Two questions I offer: you can (ideally) answer both — or one. (Answering neither is not an option!)

1. What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? If you love the season, what is one thing you do to make it particularly shivery and delightful? Dredge up your dearest All Hallows customs and confess them here! A certain mode of decoration? A way you greet the trick-or-treaters? A book or story you read in October? A traditional jack-o’-lantern face you carve? Anything at all . . . how do you greet the long shadow season?

2. What is your favorite Hallowe’en memory? This is your chance to go into detail on that time you. . . . Or when you made that. . . . Or when. . . . Childhood? The threshold between childhood and adulthood? Later still? What was a particularly memorable Hallowe’en for you?

Okay, I’ll get you started on the memories. One Hallowe’en I’ll never forget was 2005. That was the year my mom unexpectedly passed away on October 18. I flew back to the States to be with Dad and for the funeral and all. On the day of the funeral, the town was breathtakingly gorgeous — trees a miraculous palette of brilliant reds and golds. The procession of cars to the cemetery was the grandest Hallowe’en parade one could hope for — couldn’t have ordered a better day for Mom’s last ride through the town she loved. I saw a whole lot of friends and relatives that I don’t normally see — all very loving and friendly, all gazing into Eternity and aware of the brevity of life, all with an awareness of how much my mom had meant to them. A surreal time, when I’m normally teaching but wasn’t that year.

The town was decked out in Hallowe’en glory: fake tombstones like gray toadstools in yards; chokingly thick webs in trees, covering bushes; scarecrow figures, jack-o’-lanterns, ghoul dummies, witches, oddities, orange lights. . . .

I bought Hallowe’en candy, which yanked a crown off my tooth, and I had to go to the dentist. I bought pumpkins — big, orange pumpkins, so abundant and cheap in Illinois, so rare and expensive in Japan. I carved them, and my dad smiled. He said they looked like a couple, this one male, that one female. I took pictures of them.

I took the jack-o’-lanterns to my aunt’s house, because she has the best location ever for trick-or-treaters — no kidding. She’s right on the main street, in the safest neighborhood in town, where parents trust and everyone is home in well-lighted houses, and kids flock thicker than clouds in August. We set the jack-o’-lanterns on the porch and lit them. We set out my aunt’s Indian mannequins: a man and a woman (though the woman is really a man wearing a wig and a dress — a transvestite Indian). They have feathers and moccasins and fringe, and older kids love them, and middle-kids gaze at them in half-terror, and babies fear them and bawl, but still their moms carry them to the porch to receive their Hallowe’en treats. I am proud of how some kids whisper to each other about my jack-o’-lanterns — “Look at their pumpkins!”

My aunt lets me hand out the candy. We are both still somewhat numb in this world without my mom. My aunt makes popcorn, and we eat it in the brief intervals between visitors. The intervals are brief — we have something like 150 kids the first night and nearly 100 the next. We run out of candy and have to buy more for the second night. My aunt keeps a tally, making a mark on paper for every kid that comes to the door. We laugh in the quiet intervals and talk about how many of the girls seem to be dressed as hookers. There’s vampire hooker, witch hooker, and just plain hooker.

One of the most amazing things is how kids appear out of the night. They materialize from the darkness out by the street. Some cut straight across yards, through the drifts of dry leaves, crunch, crunch, crunch. But some — usually boys — RUN from the curb, a skeleton or a Scream-masked horror swooping toward our porch. Kids stand under the street lights, comparing loot, plotting their courses. Tall witch hats tip and bob as they speak. Many carry little sticks that glow in phosphorescent colors.

I comment on the kids’ costumes (though I avoid saying things like “Oh! A hooker!”). Isn’t it odd how most kids seem oddly disinterested in their costumes? One girl has a knife through her head, with blood trickling down her temples. I say, “Wow. You might want to have that looked at.”

I’m wearing a flannel shirt. For some reason, that sticks in my mind — that shirt, in that surreal October of grief and the Otherworld. Candy, candles, trick-or-treaters. Dragonfly hit the mass market that year; it’s in stores, in Barnes & Noble, in Waldenbooks — for a few brief months. I’m making it as a writer. I sit in a rocking chair opposite the door. I make the decisions about how much candy to put into each bag. My aunt sits off to the side, making her tally marks. She can see the kids through the plateglass window.

Toward the end of the evening, when the visitors trail off, and we’re eating the unpopped kernels that can break your teeth if you’re not careful, my aunt wants to call it quits. But I insist on staying open for business until the end of the time the city allows. I’m so low on candy that I can only put two or three pieces of boring stuff into each bag. But I want to stay as long as I can in my flannel shirt, up and down from my rocking chair, watching the dark, listening for the whisper and giggle of stragglers. A few bigger kids come, kids too old to be trick-or-treating — but, like me, clinging to this night.

This night. Hallowe’en. This year, this 2005, I’m  halfway through writing “The Bone Man.” Mom passed away during the restaurant scene, and I got a phonecall in Japan from the coroner, because no one else in my family could make the international phone number work. “The Bone Man” will go on to receive honors — publication in Fantasy & Science Fiction [Dec. 2007], translation into Russian, anthologization in Year’s Best Horror, honorable mentions from Dozois as a science-fiction tale and from Datlow as a fantasy/horror story. It will be on the ballot for Locus and for the International Horror Guild in their last-ever round of awards. It’s on the ballot against a Steven Millhauser story. A couple people nominate it for a Nebula. Wonder and love and family, sadness, childhood, adulthood . . . Japan, the U.S. . . . life, death, loss, success, crisp air, the imagination. . . . Everything flows together. The world turns toward winter, but on these nights, we’re linked to the earliest times, the beginnings. We are all storytellers, said Paul Darcy Boles, sitting around the cave of the world. “Why don’t you write a Hallowe’en story?” a friend of mine in Japan suggested at the beginning of that October, when I was feeling down and agonizing over what to write. So I started to write “The Bone Man,” just to distract myself. Just to have fun.

Yeah . . . as wonderful as my childhood Hallowe’ens were, I think 2005 was my Hallowe’en, the one single one I’ll never forget.

* * * * * * * * *

Don’t be overwhelmed — mine was long, but short is great, too! What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? What are your Hallowe’en memories? Back me up here! Let’s hear from you! Come running from the dark. I’m waiting!

Perspectives and Punctuations

July 17, 2008

“So what I said was true,” says Obi-Wan to Luke, “from a certain point of view.”

A friend of mine is making a whole bunch of hats to sell. She has her sewing machine humming away, and every day she adds to the mound of hats, each one a unique design. It’s looking very Bartholomew Cubbins-like around her place.

Well, the  other day when I stopped by, she asked, “Kyou no mitai?” — meaning, in Japanese, “Do you want to see today’s?” — that is, did I want to see the hats she’d made that day?

But here’s the way my mind made the word-breaks: “Kyou nomitai?” — “Do you want to drink [alcohol] today?” To which my response was, “Huh?!” (That’s not the sort of question she would typically ask!) We eventually had a good laugh over it. Or at least I did. Her reaction was more a rolling of the eyes. But it all ended well as I admired the day’s hats.

The experience reminded me of something I heard last week. Supposedly a scientific study was done (though it wasn’t verifiably cited — I suspect maybe someone made up the part about its being an actual study) in which a teacher wrote the following sentence on the chalkboard and asked students to punctuate it:

A woman without her man is nothing

According to this tale I heard, the male students mostly did it this way:

A woman without her man is nothing.

And the female students rendered it as:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

 

Next story: my dad used to tell me about a prisoner in the old Soviet Union who was set free because the jailer in charge of him received orders without punctuation. The commander sent this telegram:

RELEASE IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA

The commander had intended: “Release impossible. To be sent to Siberia.”

The jailer understood: “Release. Impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

Again, as the old Italian proverb goes: “It may not be true, but it makes a good story.”

 

Finally, another story of my dad’s: A traveler wandered into town and got along pretty well there, but one feature of the antique setting always mystified him, and no one seemed inclined to say much about the subject. In the center of the ramshackle town where the dusty streets converged, visible to all like some icon of a long-forgotten religion, was a weathered standing stone, tall and narrow, its surface pitted with untold years of sun and rain, freezings and thaws. And still clearly visible, these letters etched into it:

TOTI

EMUL

ESTO

Some travelers who came into the town seemed to understand the signficance of the inscription and would nod or even walk away chuckling, perhaps at some esoteric spiritual enlightenment. Others, like the first traveler, could only scratch their heads and go look for clues in Leonardo’s paintings.

The message for us as writers in all this: have fun with words. Be aware that what you take for granted about a sentence you’ve written may be understood in a nearly opposite way by your readers — do all you can to cover all bases, which normally means bouncing your stories off lots of test readers. And finally, as an editor’s rejection letter once brusquely advised me: “Learn standard punctuation.”

Oh! One more somewhat related note: In “The Star Shard,” now appearing monthly in Cricket Magazine, the main character’s name is Cymbril. I know how I pronounce the name, and I never imagined anyone would think to pronounce it any differently. But during the editing process, the editor asked me whether the C was hard or soft — was it “SYMbril” or “KYMbril”? (The editor, by the way, was pronouncing it the opposite of how I was.) I told her my way, but I suggested the Bugs in the margins of Cricket not tell the readers how to pronounce it. The editor agreed.

So then, on Cricket‘s Web site where readers are writing in with questions (www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin), I put the same question to readers: How do you pronounce Cymbril’s name? So far, the results are 50/50 — the Symbril school and the Kymbril school! What do you think?

The Purest Writerly Joy

June 27, 2008

Santa Claus is a close personal friend of mine. I’ll bet you didn’t know that (except for you, Santa, who I know are reading this blog up there at the North Pole). My perambulations have brought me into contact with lots of people around the world, so — the rest of you — don’t look so surprised. Why do I bring up my friendship with the Jolly Old Elf at the end of June? Well, last winter, I read an article he wrote for a newspaper about his visit to a certain town in Iowa. (Yes, Santa keeps his hand in at writing — why else would he be reading a blog about the writing life? — his life isn’t all about toy-making. Trust me: the immortal soul who annually writes the longest list in the world is a writer of the highest order {not to mention all those millions and millions of notes he leaves beside the plates of cookies and glasses of milk left out for him — he writes fast and he writes well}. And anyone who checks said list twice is also an editor, which all good writers also have to be.)

But anyway, this article of Santa’s that I read. He’d been to this town in Iowa, and he’d ridden in their Christmas Parade. But what he loved the most was talking to the children — meeting them one by one, seeing the wonder in their eyes, hearing the requests for those wonderful visions dancing in their heads. (FWIW, most kids today no longer dream that much about sugar plums.) In one of his encounters that touched Santa (and his readers) most deeply, he was able to reassure a child who was deeply worried. The little one was spending Christmas away from home, at Grandmother’s house (which was probably over the river and through the woods) — and was half-sick with worry about the ramifications that would have for Santa’s Christmas Eve visit. “Don’t worry,” Santa Claus told this wee one. “I know the way to Grandmother’s house, too.” And the child was immensely relieved. And seeing that relief that his words had brought was a greater joy, a greater fulfillment for Santa than he gets from the actual toy deliveries themselves.

Delivering those toys, I suppose, is somewhat like a farmer sowing a field. Santa knows his work will bring delight in the morning, but he can’t see the joy directly. He can’t ever see it with his own eyes. By the Rules of Christmas, he has to be long gone by the time the first sleeper tiptoes from bed to peep around the doorframe at the wondrous changes that have taken place in the night watches, in the hour of the kneeling oxen.

Santa’s main job has a lot in common with that of a writer. See the connection? We labor in isolation at our own North Poles, wherever they may be. Long months go by, and we pile up words and pages, much like Santa stacks up those bales of toys — the whistles and the balls and the whips that crack. Like Santa, we deliver. The manuscript goes out through the driving snow, out into oblivion. Once it’s gone, we’re left in the boreal darkness, drinking our hot chocolate, gazing in weary commiseration at the exhausted elves, wondering how our words are faring Out There at the place they went to. And after about two nights of deep sleep, we wander restlessly back to the workshop. We roll up our sleeves, pick up our tools, and start the whole wild, mad, paint-sloshing, industrious process again. Because that’s what we’re here to do.

But like Santa Claus, we don’t really know how our stuff went over for eleven months. (I use that number symbolically. For writers, it may be a good deal longer than that.) The moment Santa knows he pulled it off is when those letters start rolling in. The awareness comes home to him then that he’s provided what those kids wanted, and they’re relying on him to provide it again. Then, with operations well underway at the Pole, he journeys out to towns like that one in Iowa, and he meets them . . . the ones he labors for. Their faces reassure him that of all the things he might have done with his immortal life, he’s chosen the right one.

The point I’m making with all this is that, this past week, by grace, I’ve been experiencing Santa’s early December “subcreator’s joy.” It is the profoundest joy, the greatest privilege, of which I’m not worthy in the least.

Come and see — come and get a ring-side seat! Come and read these comments and questions from young readers. There’s nothing I can say about the rewards of writing that could be nearly as eloquent as your own perusal. This is what writing is for. This is why we do it: giving worlds of adventure to others — providing good food for their imaginations. The writing life doesn’t get any better than this, and there’s no award I could win that would bring me more happiness and fulfillment than these letters do. I thank the good Lord for the privilege of standing in this place. Won’t you share this joy with me on Cricket‘s Web site? Here’s the link:

http://www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin

All glory to God!

The Star Shard

June 21, 2008

     Waves of agony Cymbril had never expected rolled through her as tears spilled from her eyes and her nose ran.

     “Little bird.” His palm brushed her hair, gently as the falling of light. “This is a song I’ve not heard from you before. But it is a good song, too, and makes the world better, not worse.”

     “I don’t know what to do,” Cymbril gasped when she could. “I thought I knew what I wanted.”

     “And so you will,” said Urrt. “Your heart knows. When the time is right, it will tell your head. Have courage.”

                                                                         — from “The Star Shard”

 

My novelette “The Star Shard” is running in a serial in Cricket Magazine this year. It began in the April 2008 issue. If anyone missed that first installment, back issues can be ordered directly from Cricket at www.cricketmag.com. Or, yes, you can also simply read that part of the story on their web site at this link: www.cricketmagkids.com/starshard. (Probe around — it’s there, I promise — you may have to click “Look Inside.”) One thing that makes this event so exciting is that the editors tell me this is only the second time in the magazine’s long history (they began publication in 1973) that they’ve printed a story of this length. [The first time, for you Cricket history buffs, was M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess — I remember it!]

Anyway, “The Star Shard” is beautifully illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh. Some of Emily’s early professional work was for Wizards of the Coast, including illustrations for the Monster Manual II. Her soft, pastel style and expressive character faces are perfect for young-adult fantasy that’s full of fantastic contraptions such as the Thunder Rake and non-human people such as the Urrmsh and the Sidhe. Stories, at their core, are about characters, and I think I like Emily’s characters most of all. On Cricket‘s site, you can see many of her preliminary sketches and read her notes on them. I was given a chance to see most of them before they were finalized, and we were all in pretty close agreement (Emily, the editors, and I) over which versions we liked the best. Her Thunder Rake is based with very few alterations on a detailed sketch that I was asked to make.

Most exciting of all is that, for the first time ever, readers of Cricket can log onto the site and write in questions for Emily and me to answer. We’re both eager to do so, so we hope those questions will come pouring in!

I suppose this is also the best time to say, for anyone who doesn’t know, that you can find a complete and updated bibliography of my published writing on my web site. Either click the “Frederic S. Durbin” link on the Blogroll at the right of your screen, or else point your browser toward www.fredericsdurbin.com.

And Happy Midsummer’s Eve to all!